Assassins quest, p.10
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       Assassins Quest, p.10

         Part #3 of Farseer Trilogy series by Robin Hobb
 

  The night traveling became our pattern. I had planned to travel by day and sleep by night. But after that first night of trotting through the woods behind Nighteyes, following whichever game trails led in a generally correct direction, I decided it was better. I could not have slept by night anyway. For the first few days I even had trouble sleeping by day. I would find a vantage point that still offered us concealment and lie down, certain of my exhaustion. I would curl up and close my eyes and then lie there, tormented by the keenness of my own senses. Every sound, every scent would jolt me back to alertness, and I could not relax again until I had arisen to assure myself there was no danger. After a time, even Nighteyes complained of my restlessness. When finally I did fall asleep, it was only to shudder awake at intervals, sweating and shaking. Lack of sleep by day made me miserable by night as I trotted along in Nighteyes’ wake.

  Yet those sleepless hours and the hours when I trotted after Nighteyes, head pounding with pain, those were not wasted hours. In those hours I nurtured my hatred of Regal and his coterie. I honed it to a fine edge. This was what he had made of me. Not enough that he had taken from me my life, my lover, not enough that I must avoid the people and places I cared about, not enough the scars I bore and the random tremblings that overtook me. No. He had made me this, this shaking, frightened rabbit of a man. I had not even the courage to recall all he had done to me, yet I knew that when push came to shove, those memories would rise up and reveal themselves to unman me. The memories I could not summon by day lurked as fragments of sounds and colors and textures that tormented me by night. The sensation of my cheek against cold stone slick with a thin layer of my warm blood. The flash of light that accompanied a man’s fist striking the side of my head. The guttural sounds men make, the hooting and grunting that issues from them as they watch someone being beaten. Those were the jagged edges that sliced through my efforts at sleep. Sandy-eyed and trembling, I would lie awake beside the wolf and think of Regal. Once I had had a love that I had believed would carry me through anything. Regal had taken that from me. Now I nurtured a hatred fully as strong.

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  We hunted as we traveled. My resolution to always cook the meat soon proved futile. I managed a fire perhaps one night out of three, and only if I could find a hollow where it would not attract attention. I did not, however, allow myself to sink down to being less than a beast. I kept myself clean, and took as much care with my clothing as our rough life allowed me.

  My plan for our journey was a simple one. We would travel cross-country until we struck the Buck River. The river road paralleled it up to Turlake. A lot of people traveled the road; it might be difficult for the wolf to remain unseen, but it was the swiftest way. Once there, it was but a short distance to Tradeford on the Vin River. In Tradeford, I would kill Regal.

  That was the total sum of my plan. I refused to consider how I would accomplish any of this. I refused to worry about all I did not know. I would simply move forward, one day at a time, until I had met my goals. That much I had learned from being a wolf.

  I knew the coast from a summer of manning an oar on Verity’s warship the Rurisk, but I was not personally familiar with the inlands of Buck Duchy. True, I had traveled through it once before, on the way to the Mountains for Kettricken’s pledging ceremony. Then I had been part of the wedding caravan, well mounted and well provisioned. But now I traveled alone and on foot, with time to consider what I saw. We crossed some wild country, but much, too, had once been summer pasturage for flocks of sheep, goats, and cattle. Time after time, we traversed meadows chest-high in ungrazed grasses, to find shepherds’ huts cold and deserted since last autumn. The flocks we did see were small ones, not nearly the size of flocks I recalled from previous years. I saw few swineherds and goose-girls compared with my first journey through this area. As we drew closer to the Buck River, we passed grainfields substantially smaller than I recalled, with much good land given back to wild grasses, not even plowed.

  It made small sense to me. I had seen this happening along the coast, where farmers’ flocks and crops had been repeatedly destroyed by the raids. In recent years, whatever did not go to the Red Ships in fire or plunder was taken by taxes to fund the warships and soldiers that scarcely protected them. But upriver, out of the Raiders’ reach, I had thought to find Buck more prosperous. It disheartened me.

  We soon struck the road that followed the Buck River. There was much less traffic than I recalled, both on the road and the river. Those we encountered on the road were brusque and unfriendly, even when Nighteyes was out of sight. I stopped once at a farmstead to ask if I might draw cold water from their well. It was allowed me, but no one called off the snarling dogs as I did so, and when my waterskin was full, the woman told me I’d best be on my way. Her attitude seemed to be the prevailing one.

  And the farther I went, the worse it became. The travelers I encountered on the roads were not merchants with wagons of goods or farmers taking produce to market. Instead they were ragged families, often with all they possessed in a pushcart or two. The eyes of the adults were hard and unfriendly, while those of the children were often stricken and empty. Any hopes I had had of finding daywork along this road were soon surrendered. Those who still possessed homes and farms guarded them jealously. Dogs barked in the yards and farm workers guarded the young crops from thieves after dark. We passed several “beggar towns,” clusters of makeshift huts and tents alongside the road. By night, bonfires burned brightly in them and cold-eyed adults stood guard with staffs and pikes. By day, children sat along the road and begged from passing travelers. I thought I understood why the merchant wagons I did see were so well guarded.

  We had traveled on the road for several nights, ghosting silently through many small hamlets before we came to a town of any size. Dawn overtook us as we approached the outskirts. When some early merchants with a cart of caged chickens overtook us, we knew it was time to get out of sight. We settled for the daylight hours on a small rise that let us look down on a town built half out onto the river. When I could not sleep, I sat and watched the commerce on the road below us. Small boats and large were tied at the docks of the town. Occasionally the wind brought me the shouts of the crews unloading from the ships. Once I even heard a snatch of song. To my surprise, I found myself drawn to my own kind. I left Nighteyes sleeping, but only went as far as the creek at the foot of the hill. I set myself to washing out my shirt and leggings.

  We should avoid this place. They will try to kill you if you go there, Nighteyes offered helpfully. He was sitting on a creek bank beside me, watching me wash myself as evening darkened the sky. My shirt and leggings were almost dry. I had been attempting to explain to him why I wished to have him wait for me while I went into the town to the inn there.

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  Why would they want to kill me?

  We are strangers, coming into their hunting grounds. Why shouldn’t they try to kill us?

  Humans are not like that, I explained patiently.

  No. You are right. They will probably just put you in a cage and beat you.

  No they won’t, I insisted firmly to cover my own fears that perhaps someone might recognize me.

  They did before, he insisted. Both of us. And that was your own pack.

  I could not deny that. So I promised, I will be very, very careful. I shall not be long. I just want to go listen to them talk for a bit, to find out what is happening.

  Why should we care what is happening to them? What is happening to us is that we are neither hunting, nor sleeping, nor traveling. They are not pack with us.

  It may tell us what to expect, farther on our journey. I may find out if the roads are heavily traveled, if there is work I can take for a day or so to get a few coins. That sort of thing.

  We could simply travel on and find out for ourselves, Nighteyes pointed out stubbornly.

  I dragged on my shirt and leggings over
my damp skin. I combed my hair back with my fingers, squeezed the moisture from it. Habit made me tie it back in a warrior’s tail. Then I bit my lip, considering. I had planned to represent myself as a wandering scribe. I took it out of its tail and shook it loose. It came almost to my shoulders. A bit long for a scribe’s hair. Most of them kept their hair short, and shaved it back from the brow line to keep it from their eyes when they worked. Well, with my untrimmed beard and shaggy hair, perhaps I could be taken for a scribe who had been long without work. Not a good recommendation for my skills, but given the poor supplies I had, perhaps that was best.

  I tugged my shirt straight to make myself presentable. I fastened my belt, checked to be sure my knife sat securely in its sheath, and then hefted the paltry weight of my purse. The flint in it weighed more than the coins. I did have the four silver bits from Burrich. A few months ago it would not have seemed like much money. Now it was all I had, and I resolved not to spend it unless I must. The only other wealth I had was the earring Burrich had given me and the pin from Shrewd. Reflexively my hand went to the earring. As annoying as it could be when we were hunting through dense brush, the touch of it always reassured me. Likewise the pin in the collar of my shirt.

  The pin that wasn’t there.

  I took the shirt off and checked the entire collar, and then the complete garment. I methodically kindled a small fire for light. Then I undid my bundle completely and went through everything in it, not once, but twice. This despite my almost certain knowledge of where the pin was. The small red ruby in its nest of silver was in the collar of a shirt worn by a dead man outside the shepherd’s hut. I was all but certain, and yet I could not admit it to myself. All the while I searched, Nighteyes prowled in an uncertain circle around my fire, whining in soft agitation about an anxiety he sensed but could not comprehend. “Shush!” I told him irritably, and forced my mind to go back over the events as if I were going to report to Shrewd.

  The last time I could remember having the pin was the night I had driven Burrich and Chade away. I had taken it out of the shirt’s collar and showed it to them both, and then sat looking at it. Then I had put it back. I could not recall handling it since then. I could not recall taking it out of the shirt when I washed it. It seemed I should have jabbed myself with it when I washed it if it was still there. But I usually pushed the pin into a seam where it would hold tighter. It had seemed safer so. I had no way of knowing if I had lost it hunting with the wolf, or if it was still in the shirt the dead man wore. Perhaps it had been left on the table, and one of the Forged ones had picked up the bright thing when they pawed through my possessions.

  It was just a pin, I reminded myself. With a sick longing I wished I would suddenly see it, caught in the lining of my cloak or tumbled inside my boot. In a sudden flash of hope, I checked inside both boots again. It still wasn’t there. Just a pin, just a bit of worked metal and a gleaming stone. Just the token King Shrewd had given me when he claimed me, when he created a bond between us to replace the blood one that could never be legitimately recognized. Just a pin, and all I had left of my king and my grandfather. Nighteyes whined again, and I felt an irrational urge to snarl back at him. He must have known that, but still he came, flipping my elbow up with his nose and then burrowing his head under my arm until his great gray head was up against my chest and my arm around his shoulders. He tossed his nose up suddenly, clacking his muzzle painfully against my chin. I hugged him hard, and he turned to rub his throat against my face. The ultimate gesture of trust, wolf to wolf, that baring of the throat to another’s possible snarl. After a moment I sighed, and the pain of loss I felt over the thing was less.

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  It was just a thing from a yesterday? Nighteyes wondered hesitantly. A thing no longer here? It is not a thorn in your paw, or a pain in your belly?

  “Just a thing from yesterday,” I had to agree. A pin that had been given to a boy who no longer existed by a man who had died. Perhaps it was as well, I thought to myself. One less thing that might connect me to FitzChivalry the Witted. I ruffled the fur on the back of his neck, then scratched behind his ears. He sat up beside me, then nudged me to get me to rub his ears again. I did, thinking as I did so. Perhaps I should take off Burrich’s earring and keep it concealed in my pouch. But I knew I would not. Let it be the one link I carried forward from that life to this one. “Let me up,” I told the wolf, and he reluctantly stopped leaning on me. Methodically I repacked my possessions into a bundle and fastened it, then trampled out the tiny fire.

  “Shall I come back here or meet you on the other side of town?”

  Other side?

  If you circle about the town and then come back toward the river, you will find more of the road there, I explained. Shall we find one another there?

  That would be good. The less time we spend near this den of humans, the better.

  Fine, then. I shall find you there before morning, I told him.

  More likely, I shall find you, numb nose. And I shall have a full belly when I do.

  I had to concede that was likelier.

  Watch out for dogs, I warned him as he faded into the brush.

  You watch out for men, he rejoined, and then was lost to my senses save for our Wit bond.

  I slung my pack over my shoulder and made my way down to the road. It was full dark now. I had intended to reach town before dark and stop at a tavern for the talk and perhaps a mug, and then be on my way. I had wanted to walk through the market square and listen in on the talk of the merchants. Instead I walked into a town that was mostly abed. The market was deserted save for a few dogs nosing in the empty stalls for scraps. I left the square and turned my steps toward the river. Down there I would find inns and taverns aplenty to accommodate the river trade. A few torches burned here and there throughout the town, but most of the light in the streets was what spilled from poorly shuttered windows. The roughly cobbled streets were not well kept up. Several times I mistook a hole for a shadow and nearly stumbled. I stopped a town watchman before he could stop me, to ask him to recommend a waterfront inn to me. The Scales, he told me, was as fair and honest to travelers as its name implied, and was easily found as well. He warned me sternly that begging was not tolerated there, and that cutpurses would be lucky if a beating was all they got. I thanked him for his warnings and went on my way.

  I found the Scales as easily as the watchman had said I would. Light spilled out from its open door, and with it the voices of two women singing a merry round. My heart cheered at the friendly sound of it, and I entered without hesitation. Within the stout walls of mud brick and heavy timbers was a great open room, low-ceilinged and rich with the smells of meat and smoke and riverfolk. A cooking hearth at one end of the room had a fine spit of meat in its maw, but most folk were gathered at the cooler end of the room on this fine summer evening. There the two minstrels had dragged chairs up on top of a table and were twining their voices together. A gray-haired fellow with a harp, evidently part of their group, was sweating at another table as he fastened a new string to his instrument. I judged them a master and two journey singers, possibly a family group. I stood watching them sing together, and my mind went back to Buckkeep and the last time I had heard music and seen folk gathered together. I did not realize I was staring until I saw one of the women surreptitiously elbow the other and make a minute gesture at me. The other woman rolled her eyes, then returned my look. I looked down, reddening. I surmised I had been rude and turned my eyes away.

  I stood on the outskirts of the group, and joined in the applause when the song ended. The fellow with the harp was ready by then, and he coaxed them into a gentler tune, one with the steady rhythm of oars as its beat. The women sat on the edge of the table, back to back, their long black hair mingling as they sang. Folk sat down for that one, and some few moved to tables against the wall for quiet talk. I watched the man’s fingers on the strings of the harp, marveling at the swiftness of his
fingers. In a moment a red-cheeked boy was at my elbow, asking what I would have. Just a mug of ale, I told him, and swiftly he was back with it and the handful of coppers that were the remains of my silver piece. I found a table not too far from the minstrels, and rather hoped someone would be curious enough to join me. But other than a few glances from obviously regular customers, no one seemed much interested in a stranger. The minstrels ended their song and began talking amongst themselves. A glance from the older of the two women made me realize I was staring again. I put my eyes on the table.

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  Halfway down the mug, I realized I was no longer accustomed to ale, especially not on an empty stomach. I waved the boy back to my table and asked for a plate of dinner. He brought me a fresh cut of meat from the spit with a serving of stewed root vegetables and broth spilled over it. That and a refilling of my mug took away most of my copper pieces. When I raised my eyebrows over the prices, the boy looked surprised. “It’s half what they’d charge you at the Yardarm Knot, sir,” he told me indignantly. “And the meat is good mutton, not someone’s randy old goat come to a bad end. ”

  I tried to smooth things over, saying, “Well, I suppose a silver bit just doesn’t buy what it used to. ”

  “Perhaps not, but it’s scarcely my fault,” he observed cheekily, and went back to his kitchens.

  “Well, there’s a silver bit gone faster than I expected,” I chided myself.

  “Now that’s a tune we all know,” observed the harper. He was sitting with his back to his own table, apparently watching me as his two partners discussed some problem they were having with a pipe. I nodded at him with a smile, and then spoke aloud when I noticed that his eyes were hazed over gray.

  “I’ve been away from the river road for a while. A long while, actually, about two years. The last time I was through here, inns and food were less expensive. ”

 
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